Thursday, September 21, 2017

Giants in 2017 - Surveying the Devastation





At this moment, the San Francisco Giants are 60-93, dead last in their division, with the worst record in both leagues. In 2016, the team went 87-75, and made it all the way to the second round of the play-offs, losing 3 games to 1 to the Cubs, who went on to win the World Series. 

How did this happen?

The odds-makers had put the 2017 Giants in the middle of the play-off picture, picked to win 90 games. From contender to dead last in just a single year! 

There were signs of course. After a great first half in 2016, they had a dreadful second half. 

Entering 2017, the team was essentially the same as it had been the previous year, with a few minor tweaks, though those proved to be crucial.

Comparing the position player line-ups for 2016 --

1B Brandon Belt
2B Joe Panik
3B Matt Duffy / Eduardo Nunez
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Angel Pagan
CF Denard Span
RF Hunter Pence
C Buster Posey

-- to those in 2017 --

1B Brandon Belt
2B Joe Panik
3B Nunez / Sandoval
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Hernandez / Parker
CF Denard Span
RF Hunter Pence
C Buster Posey

-- you wouldn't have had the feeling this line-up could underperform to the degree it has. 

On the analytical side, it's a line-up structured around Pac Bell Park's dimensions. In exchange for fewer home runs, you hope for a lot of doubles and triples, good defense and excellent pitching. And indeed, the championship teams of 2010, 2012 and 2014 were built around excellent starting pitching,  with good set-up men and a brilliant closer. 

Since the departure of Barry Bonds after the 2007 season, management has consistently emphasized pitching and defense over power. Historically, success can be achieved with either formula. Some great teams of the 20th Century, the Yankees of the 1920's or '50's, for instance, were built around power. However given the legal reconfiguration of major league baseball, free-agency and salary caps, it's difficult for any team, no matter how well-heeled, to hold onto a squad of expensive stars. 

With respect to the dimensions of Pac Bell, a good argument can be made in favor of a team with speed and agility--stealing bases and hitting lots of doubles and triples on offense, while covering the big outfield with speed and savvy--counting on good pitching to throttle opponents' power. But any team plays only half its games at home; playing in another park with shorter dimensions can put you at a serious disadvantage if you're playing pepper while the other guys are hitting dingers. In an ideal world, you have it all, power and speed, good run production and great defense, dependable starting pitching and great closers. But maintaining this kind of balance, year in and year out, even if you can somehow bring it together temporarily, is nearly impossible. Teams form and reform, stars rise and fall, older players drop out while young ones rise. Players have good years and bad, but they seldom have them all together at the same time, with the same team. And then there are the injuries. 



This year, we lost our ace, Madison Bumgarner, to a freak accident at the beginning of the season. Had he not gone down, he was expected to win 14-18 games. That didn't happen. Samardzija, a good journeyman starter, was exposed for what he essentially is, a very talented player who will never rise to the first rank of performers. Matt Moore, a reconstruction project picked up last year for the stretch run, had a horrible time. Matt Cain, nearing the end of his career, was a shadow of his former self, while Johnny Cueto was lost for much of the year with nagging little injuries. Ty Blach, in his first full season in the bigs, showed signs of promise. Mark Melancon, signed in the off-season to replace the departed Casilla, went down with injury, too, forcing the team to use alternatives (hello, Sam Dyson). 

It's hard not to think that when Bumgarner went down, much of the rest of the team didn't fall into an emotional nose-dive, especially when none of the other starters stepped up. Belt, Crawford and Pence all have had off-years, hitting well below their usual average(s). Left field--as everyone has come to characterize it--became the "black hole" which the team seemed unable to cover. Gorky Hernandez (Gorkys Hernandez??) in left field? Jarrett Parker, apparently the heir apparent, went down to injury too, so it's still unclear whether he has the stuff to be a real regular. 

Once the season went south, management appeared to have given up too. On July 26th, in the middle of the season, they traded Eduardo Nunez, our starting 3rd baseman, to the Red Sox for minor leaguers. Christian Arroyo, another rookie at 3rd, gave hints of a possible future, then was injured. Throughout the second half, the team has cycled in a long list of minor leaguers, has-beens and also rans--Ryder Jones, Pablo Sandoval, Austin Slater, Conor Gillaspie, Aaron Hill, Mac Williamson, Justin Ruggiano, Orlando Calixte, Mike Morse, Drew Stubbs, Tim Federowicz, Derek Law, Kyle Crick, Steven Overt, Albert Suarez, etc.--none of whom seems likely to be with any major league team two years from now. It has looked a little like desperation. 

Who now on the team deserves to stay next year, and become a part of a better team?




Posey seems solid, as does Panik. We'd be stupid to let either of these stars depart. Crawford's still a great fielder, and he still leads the team in RBI's, despite having an off year at the bat. Belt's been a puzzle, throughout his career. On paper, he seems intriguing, but watching him play everyday, you have the feeling he doesn't quite realize is talent. He should be hitting 25-30 homers a year, and at least .275. He also rarely performs in the clutch. Surrounded by a great team, he looks fine, but it's hard to justify his presence here, given our power vacuum. Pence is a quandary too. When he first came here, fans were overjoyed. His enthusiasm, his hustle, his combination of speed AND power, seemed perfect. But he's become injury-prone, and he seems frequently clueless at the plate, swinging at bad balls, over-anxious. Is 2016 an anomaly, or is his career on a decline? Hard to say. I like him in right field. On balance, I feel he would be hard to replace. 

The weak spots on this team are --

Third base
Left field
First base

In the past, I've recommended the team seek to improve its power, and that's my recommendation now. Traditionally, you want production from the corner positions. 1st and 3rd should give you homers and RBI's. Ditto with left fielders. We'd like a right handed power hitter (25-30 homers, 85 RBI's) at third and in left field. 

As Posey's career enters its second phase, it would be prudent to move him to 1st, at least on a regular part-time basis, to extend his career and reduce the wear and tear on his body. With luck, he could play until he's 40, and be productive throughout his 30's. He already has Hall of Fame numbers. 

On the mound, Bumgarner's the ace. He looks durable, and there's no reason to think he won't bounce back next year. Cueto's contract status is up in the air at the moment. If he elects to stay, we could expect him to put in more good years (he's only 31). Samardzija's no favorite of mine, unless you figure him for a fourth or fifth in the rotation; if he left, I wouldn't miss him. At this point, I want no more of Moore, or Cain. Melancon may or may not be as good as his rep, but Dyson is welcome to replace him, if he can. 

So we need one more good starter, and we need a good set-up man or two. No one the team has used this year looks good enough to stay. Gearrin, Strickland, Osich, Law, Suarez, Overt--a mediocre list at best.

Once upon a time, the Giants farm system was among the best, but in recent decades, there hasn't been the same quality. My own theory is that major league baseball has too many teams, and that there's been a watering down of overall talent. Broadcasters today will talk casually about "prospects" in the minor leagues: "Then there's this fellow at Pawtucket, pretty good stuff, ERA of 5.43, a 2-5 record and impressive fast ball at 89 mph." I can remember when that kind of "performance" at Triple A wouldn't have landed you a job at the local hardware store. 

When I first started following major league baseball, in 1958, there were 16 teams, 8 in each league. Today there are 30. Imagine how much better teams would be today, if the best players of those 30 teams had to be winnowed down to fill just 16. Most of the marginal contributors would either be in the minor leagues, or out of professional ball completely. Players like Belt, Hernandez, Tomlinson, Moore, Strickland would probably be struggling in Double A. 

Is the general level of play better or worse than it was half a century ago? It's an interesting question. Can mere statistics tell the whole story? 

In 2018, the Giants will have to play better, and they will certainly need to make some changes. Can the team afford to bring in some sluggers, another quality starter, and some decent set-up hurlers? On paper, you'd think it would be possible. But does the management have the will? Is it a matter of money, or are there other factors? Just this week, Giants management opined that star hitters would be hard to convince to come play for the team, given its "difficult" ball park, and California tax rates. But these problems don't seem to have hurt the Dodgers, who have one of the most feared line-ups of all, and will win our division title for the fifth year in a row.  



Tuesday, September 5, 2017

John Ashbery [1927-2017]


When we remember someone we've known, who has died, we may choose, voluntarily or not, to recall them at a certain age in their life. We are all oldest at the point we depart life, but who we were in a larger sense, encompasses the full breadth of our lives, not just the oldest version. Few people are famous as children, or achieve fame at an early enough age that we think of them always as young, immature, and familiar. Perhaps people remember Judy Garland, or Shirley Temple in a perpetual childhood state, as if their having grown up were an afterthought to the larger-than-life quality they projected at the height of their being. 

John Ashbery was precocious from an early age, but developed as a writer somewhat more slowly, reaching an impressive degree of fame in his forties, with the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror [1975]. His earlier work had been somewhat notoriously "difficult"--a quality routinely remarked about his work. 

As a young aspiring poet in the 1960's and '70's, I encountered Ashbury's work first by finding a copy of his Tennis Court Oath [Wesleyan University Press, 1962] in a student bookstore while a student at Berkeley in 1968. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but its impressionistic, synesthetic qualities I found intriguing, despite my inability (or unwillingness?) to understand the narrative structure of his poems. It would be later that I would find out about his Dada, Surrealist sources of inspiration, which took some of the mystery (and intrigue) out of my earlier apprehension. When you are young, you may impute mysterious qualities to things simply because of your own innocence or ignorance. 




 


Ashbery's career unfolded in an odd way. The first two books, Some Trees and Tennis Court, were challenging and unapproachable for the general reader. Rivers and Mountains [1966] was a bit more apprehensible, and the camp The Double Dream of Spring [1970] seemed fully formed, mature work. Three Poems [1972] was like meditative prose-poetry, almost a kind of philosophical tract. So when Self-Portrait appeared, its meditative flow struck just the right note, and won all the prizes. Had Ashbery finally crossed over from hermetic abstruseness to fully realized accessibility? 

As time wore on, Ashbery's productivity increased, turning out almost a book every two years over the next three decades. Rather than becoming clearer and more sensible, his work became difficult again. After Self-Portrait, I tended to lose interest in his poetry, which struck me as repetitive and playful in a frustrating way. Whereas Tennis Court had been innovative and experimental, Self Portrait had been a triumph, a synthesis of organization combined with unusual insights. His later work became increasingly camp and nonsensical, as if these qualities mattered most. 

I have thought over the last 30 years, that Ashbery had written too much, a feeling I tended to have about other writers, such as John Updike, and W.S. Merwin. It seemed to me that Ashbery had become so facile, that he could turn out a poem at any time, with his characteristically elusive elaboration, without the least provocation. Nearly all of his work is filled with fascinating observations, reports of feeling and concept--but these aspects don't necessarily cohere into unified works of art. The point Ashbery seemed to be making was that they didn't need to. He had "done that" before, so why write it again? 

Ashbery's long denouement will have to await the judgment of history, but for me, his career's apex is Self-Portrait, followed by a series of extended footnotes. 

I had two interactions with him. The first was when he generously agreed to give me poems for a little magazine I was editing in the mid-70's--which, unfortunately, I was never able to use. The second was when I discovered a book that had belonged to him back when he was a graduate student in the early 1950's. I wrote a two-part blog about my speculations regarding the influence of this text on his work, and he wrote me about it. In both instances, he was cordial and not in the least difficult or condescending. 

Ashbery was among the handful of writers who were important to me in my writing life. Sophisticated to a fault, deeply intelligent, open-minded, mischievous, ambitious and tireless. The photo above would be from about the time he would have been writing Self Portrait, I think. It shows a young man, casual and relaxed, with an intense curiosity and determination--qualities that you can sense in his work. Ashbery lived a very long life, and was totally redeemed by his successful writing. When someone lives for that long (aged 90) there is little to mourn, because nothing is wasted. He used it all up, a self-consuming artifact of time.